Two Muslim pupils have been forced to study in isolation after refusing to shave off their beards for religious reasons.
The two 14-year-olds have been in ‘isolation’ at Mount Carmel Roman Catholic High School in Accrington, Lancashire, for almost a month after the school claimed they were breaching its dress code.
Beards are banned under the guidelines, which also prohibits the wearing of false nails, fake tan, make-up, inappropriate jewellery and the dyeing of hair.
The families of the boys, who have not been named, claim the pupils are being discriminated against as their religion forbids them to shave due to beards’ status as a symbol of faith.
A relative of one of the boys said: “Because these boys cannot shave their beards for religious reasons, they are being put in isolation for six-and-a-half hours every day.
“They are not being allowed to mix with anybody or speak to friends. It is pure discrimination.
“They chose that school because it is within their area and has good results. The school has to have an open policy and they have to take in people from all religions.”
She added their parents sent the school a letter of complaint explaining they could not shave as their beards were symbols of their faith.
The letter has since been retracted to allow for talks between the families, teachers and the Lancashire Council of Mosques.
Schools and colleges are currently given the freedom to set their own policies on uniform. Guidance from the Department for Education states that it should be possible for various religious beliefs to be accommodated within individual institutions’ policies.
The right to a particular religious dress code is safeguarded by the Human Rights Act and must be followed by schools and colleges, it is claimed.
But the guidance says that teachers can lawfully impose policies that “restrict the freedom of pupils to manifest their religion” – for example, by covering their face or carrying the traditional Sikh kirpan dagger – on various grounds.
Last month the Prime Minister said he would “back up” schools that ask people to remove Muslim veils, saying if schools wanted to implement a particular dress code, he believed the Government should back them.
The school said its own research concluded the Koran does not require the pupils to wear beards, making it a choice rather than a rule, and says they will not be permitted to return until the matter is resolved.
Head teacher Xavier Bowers said governors had decided no exceptions could be made to the uniform policy.
Mr Bowers said the rule had been in place for a while, but had been strictly enforced from the beginning of the new term, after letters explaining there would be no exceptions were sent out.
“The rule in school is that all boys have to be clean shaven,” he said. “Having said that, there were two Year 11 boys last year who had grown a beard and because it was months or weeks before their GCSE exams, I spoke to the two boys, who explained that on religious grounds, they wanted to keep their beards.
Mr Bower said he felt it would have been an unfair pressure to bear on them and agreed to amake an exception.
He added: “On the back of that, I made arrangements to speak to a number of other Asian boys who were also sporting beards to make them aware there would not be any further exceptions and, when they came back after the summer, they were expected to be clean-shaven. All but two did.
“Children who turn up to school with red hair, inappropriate jewellery, false tan or make-up are isolated in a room until the matter is addressed and then they return to their normal day.
“These boys were given the option to do that and chose not to.”
Around a third of the 750 pupils at Mount Carmel are from ethnic minorities, mostly Pakistani, according to the 2012 Ofsted report.
The issue of whether beards are compulsory for devout Muslims is open to interpretation, according to Professor Muhammad Abdel Haleem, of the School of Oriental and African Studies at the University of London.
He said the Prophet Muhammad was believed to have had a beard and that men insisting on doing the same claimed they were emulating his actions.
Many Muslim scholars now do not see the beard as compulsory and choose to shave.
Mr Bowers said the issue was not one of religion, but of upholding school rules.
He said: “We have not taken this decision lightly. I have spent quite a lot of time researching the issue and speaking to Muslim elders.
“There is nothing specifically written in the Koran about wearing a beard. It is a choice those boys are making. However inclusive we are, we have standards to maintain.”
Chairman of governors Dennis Ford said: “The decision to uphold the rule was made by governors and it is a rule for everybody.”
Abdul Hamid Quereshi, chairman of the Lancashire Council of Mosques said: “The headteacher is co-operating and the school wants to learn about the issue and address them appropriately.
“Different people have different variations of understanding.
“Some are newly interacting with the Muslim community and it is our duty not to put people in awkward positions.”